As a naturalized Texan, I loved this story about the expression “Bless your heart”.
Like a sweet candy with a sour center, “bless your heart” can cloak a tart surprise, however. That’s likeliest in the South, where good manners and irony flourish together like clematis among roses and wielding the phrase creatively can be an art form.
Celia Rivenbark of Wilmington, N.C., the author of a book of Southernisms titled Bless Your Heart, Tramp, offered some pungent examples. For instance, “You know, it’s amazing that even though she had that baby seven months after they got married, bless her heart, it weighed 10 pounds!”
Or: “If brains were dynamite, he wouldn’t have enough to ruffle his hair, bless his heart.”
Jill Connor Browne of Madison, Miss., another writer on Southern manners and usage, explained the phrase’s power: “We can say absolutely the vilest things that come into our mind about another person and yet still leave the listener with the impression of our unfailing sweetness.”
Allison Burkette, a sociolinguist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, offered this statement as an example: “Well, John, bless his little heart, tries as hard as he can, but just can’t seem to pass math.”
Her translation: “John’s too dumb to do much in the way of mathematics.”
I discussed this with Tiffany last night, and we agree that there’s a difference between “Bless your heart” and “Bless his/her heart”. The former is generally said with affection, whereas the latter, as it is said about someone who isn’t there to hear it, often is not, as indicated above. It’s certainly not always meant unkindly; context is everything. If you really want to stick the knife in, as Ginger once noted to me, is to say something like “She does the best she can with what she has, bless her heart.” Nothing good comes out of that one, believe me.